Pulled or Strained Muscles: What they are, how to treat them, and how to avoid them

Pulled or Strained Muscles

A few years ago I was playing in an intramural softball league over the summer.  As a full time college student with a part time job, my exercise time was minimal.  Outside of a 20-30 minute jog here and there or the rare bike ride to campus, these Saturday morning games were the most physical activity I got in a week.  Getting together with friends to play a competitive (but not TOO competitive) game of softball was so much fun… until it wasn’t.  One week I decided to sit out a game and got a call that if I didn’t show up our team would be one female short and have to forfeit.  I rushed to the field and was immediately handed a bat.  Pitch. Swing. Contact. Run. OUCH!!!!!! (I thought I was dying but it was actually pulled or strained muscles.)

Immediately I felt a searing pain in the front of both legs, like a tearing cramp that made movement nearly impossible.  I hobbled to first base and immediately sat down before being helped from the field.  I had pulled my quadriceps in both legs. The rest of the game was spent with bottles of cold Gatorade strapped to me before I was carried to a car and driven home to recover in misery.

muscle injury simplyfitandclean quadriceps

I strained the quads of both legs


A muscle strain or colloquially a “pulled muscle,” is the stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon.  The worse the tear, the worse the pain.  The signs of pulled or strained muscles are:*

  • Immediate pain
  • Difficulty moving the injured muscle
  • Possible discoloration or bruising
  • Swelling

If there is bleeding, excessive swelling, or a total inability to move the muscle, seek medical attention immediately.

Pulling or straining a muscle is caused by expending too much physical effort when unprepared (example: running a marathon without training for the distance,) skipping warmups (example: going straight to bat in a softball game,) or any sort of accidental overstretching of a muscle (example: straining a back muscle while diving for a dropped cell phone.) Strain is not to be confused with sprainwhich is the equivalent injury to a ligament rather than a muscle or tendon.


Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation - pulled or strained muscles

Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation

Remember hearing the acronym RICE in gym class?  The same treatment is prescribed today.

R – Rest.  Let the injured muscle heal for at least a few days, and even after that take it easy while the muscle fibers rebuild.

I – Ice.  Ice the affected area for no more than 15 minutes at a time.  Any longer can do more damage than good thanks to the Hunting Response wherein blood starts to flow to the injured area faster to prevent damage to the tissue from too much cold. (Read comments for more specific directions)

C – Compression. Wrap the affected area with an ACE bandage or other support appropriate for your type of injury.  Never wrap so tightly that circulation is hindered.

E – Elevation.  While resting that muscle, keep it lifted to the same elevation as the heart as much as possible.  Keeping blood from pooling in the area will help speed up recovery and lessen pain.

EDIT: Thanks to the comments, I’ll add a recommendation here to see a licensed, trained Massage Therapist with experience in injury recovery.  This is especially helpful in the management of scar tissue formation.


  • Build up. Slowly ramp up training over a period of time, particularly for any sort of distance or endurance event.
  • STRETCH.  The type of stretching you do will depend on the workout (example: static stretches are not recommended before a run,) but regardless of the exercise, some amount of warm up and cool down is always in order.  Check out Physio Advisor for particular types of preventative stretching.
  • Regular exercise.  Unlucky muscle injuries caused by every day events are less likely to occur if you are keeping muscles and tendons flexible and strong.
  • Don’t ignore pain.  If alarm bells go off in your head that some pain isn’t normal, LISTEN.  Overdoing it is a common source of muscle injury.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of physical therapy bills.


Pain Relief Ice Pack with Strap for Hot & Cold Therapy – Reusable Gel Pack for Injuries $21

Moji Curve PRO Massager – $49

MEDca Self Adherent Cohesive Wrap Bandages- First Aid Tape for Sprain Swelling and Soreness $10

*This site is not to be construed as dispensing medical advice.  For injuries, please consult your doctor.
“Sprains and Strains” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sprains-and-strains/DS00343
“Fitness for Dummies” http://books.google.com/books?id=-lFEBOHpBG4C&pg=PA60&dq=pulled+muscle+cause&as_brr=3&ei=RJeBSdlvlsAzjJW5mg4&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=pulled%20muscle%20cause&f=false
“Ice After, Not Before Sports Participation” http://blog.tarlowknee.com/2012/01/ice-after-not-before-sports.html
Physio Advisor: http://www.physioadvisor.com.au/
“Strains: Pulled Muscle” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001109
“Cryotherapy, Acute Injury and Pain Control” http://whymassagetherapy.com/blog/cryotherapy-acute-injury-pain-control/
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15 Responses to Pulled or Strained Muscles: What they are, how to treat them, and how to avoid them

  1. jadedyermt says:

    Hello there! I’m an RMT (Registered Massage Therapist) working in Alberta, Canada. I’d like to leave a couple comments and/or recommendations regarding muscle strains. You’re right on the mark when it comes to RICE, however, I’d like to make note here that you DO NOT leave ice on any injured area for more than 15 minutes. The reason? After the 15 minute mark, the effects of cold is actually reversed, and starts to heat up the injured tissue with an influx of blood. Sounds backwards, but it’s true. It’s called the Hunting Response/Reaction. Icing an injury for 5-10 minutes is more than sufficient. You can leave ice on for 5 minutes, off for 5, back on for 5 and so on.

    Other tips for recovering from strains and sprains: visit a trained Massage Therapist that’s experienced in treating this type of injury. Massage helps to reduce pain, inflammation, helps the muscle tissues to rebuild and return to a healthier state, as well as managing scar tissue build up.

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  14. Susan George says:

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